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Composer Spaces | Chris Watson

SOUNZ's request for a contribution to its excellent Composer Spaces (spurred by my piece ogee being named a finalist in this year's SOUNZ Contemporary Award) finds me in a difficult spot. I've not added any lines or dots to manuscript since early 2017, when I completed a work for my friend Dylan Lardelli (for Baroque guitar, traverso flute, Baroque viola and bass viol) called Cloud Transcription. Before that there is another two year gap back to a work written at the request of Ben Hoadley (for bassoon and string trio).

My presence at the SOUNZ Contemporary Award is due to having entered a work written in 2008, while Mozart Fellow in Dunedin. The piece was recorded in 2015, but the audio has only become available in the last year, in time for the 2019 intake. This, and recent performances of other older works creates the illusion that I'm an active composer, but really, I'm irregular at best, a journeyman awaiting a commission and a deadline, too busy with the demands of life to put myself out there in the pursuit of new opportunities.

My day-job, one that I find immensely fulfilling, is also a problem here. In 2018 I filmed 178 New Zealand works in concert halls all over the country. Works occupying every imaginable spot on the stylistic spectrum, for solo up to orchestra, choirs, opera, by the living and the dead. An awful lot of music in a world in which there's an awful lot of music. I'm left with the inexorable feeling that if I do choose to compose something, it had better have some semblance of originality (this being an impossible pursuit), or at least should push me beyond and away from modes of working that have become comfortable and which I know are successful. This pressure hampers getting started but is, I think, essential.

I'm not currently composing and have no immediate plans to compose (and there aren't any commissioners beating down my door), although I have for a long time harboured plans to write a piece that involves a soloist reading from an animated score, with precisely-synced fixed media elements that are cued visually. I've made halting attempts to get this off the ground, but fairly quickly run into difficulties caused by a lack of technical know-how, and gnawing doubts around the project's feasibility. But I think this will be my next piece.

Where do I compose? Nowhere right now. We moved house 18 months back and I've not yet established a place to compose. There's a spare room containing a guest bed and sitting on the floor is the computer that I have my music software on. It's not been plugged in and turned on in all this time and it will no doubt demand a demoralising slew of software updates at such time as I do give it some attention. Deathly. But I suppose this room is where I will compose at some time in the future. It looks out on to some trees.

I might sound down in the dumps about the whole thing, but I'm really not. I realised a while back that I'm a creative person who just happens to have, up to a point, followed an exclusively musical path. My day job means that I'm still very much a part of that world, and can contribute in a creative fashion to it, but my after-hours creative ambitions have wandered off in other directions. I'm a woodturner, with three not very good wooden bowls to my credit, but with enough immersion in the art to have become utterly hooked. At the time of writing, my sparky is booked for a final fit-out of a workshop I've been sound-proofing for most of this year. Soon I'll be moving my antique Tanner lathe in there and resuming work on a segmented bowl that was put on hold when we moved house. Artistic gratification currently resides in the shaping of this collection of glued together wooden segments and rings.  The completion of this bowl is every bit as important to me as the completion of a piece of music.

So am I done as a composer? No. I feel a duty to myself and to any number of people and organisations that have supported and encouraged me over many years to keep going. But I'm also committed to being a Dad and partner, as well as to my job and the ever-growing collection of performance films, which I see as my real musical legacy. Composition will re-emerge at some point and will take its place somewhere alongside these things and the making of sawdust.


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